Presenter Engagement

When thinking about arts organizations and community engagement, it is easy to get stuck on producer organizations–symphonies, theatres, dance companies, and (most of the time) museums. But there is another major constituency under the heading “arts organizations”–presenters, usually performing arts venues. (When museums host traveling exhibitions they are, similarly, presenters.)

I have spoken with staff members of presenting organizations interested in community engagement who lament the fact that they are not in a position to select specific works themselves. Instead, they have to book what producing organizations–touring companies or local groups–are offering. They believe producers have more flexibility in tailoring programming to community needs.

There is truth in that. At the same time, however, there are some ways in which the presenter is better positioned to support community engagement.

  • First, presenters, are more directly tied to ticket sales or visitor numbers than some producing organizations perceive themselves to be. As a result, there is, potentially, more institutional incentive to connect with communities. They don’t know what they will be presenting, so it behooves them to maximize the number of communities with which they have relationships. Positioning the presenter space as a community-friendly gathering place–as suggested in the rest of this list–is an ideal way to address this need.
  • Second, many presenters offer arts training programs at their venues. To be clear, education is not community engagement. However, the opportunity for participatory arts activities that education programs develop–especially when geared toward adults–can be a key component of an engagement strategy.
  • Third, many (but by no means all) presenters have outdoor spaces, like plazas, that afford the opportunity for public gathering and public events.
  • Fourth, performing and rehearsal spaces as well as lobbies can be utilized for meetings, social gatherings, and community-oriented presentations.

All of these are advantages that many producer organizations do not have. In addition, with respect to programming, presenters do have choices about what to program and, in many cases, there are options that can directly address community interests if the presenter knows those interests.

I am always leery of examples because of the unique nature of every arts organization-community connection. However, two venues come to mind. The Music Center of Los Angeles, one of the largest presenting venues in the U.S., has made a mission-level commitment to connecting with communities: “connect the people of Los Angeles with one another and with art that can enrich their lives.” It’s On Location program presents in LA neighborhoods, and it has an extensive program of public events at gatherings at Grand Park, a city park run by the Center. All of this is organized by a staff of four specifically charged with community engagement.

In nearby Costa Mesa, CA, the Segerstrom Center for the arts sees itself as “a cultural center and dynamic town square deeply engrained in the fabric of our community.” Its Center without Boundaries establishes civic partnerships with local non-arts organizations from communities it wants to engage and helps them address their specific goals. Out of its dance education program an Alzheimers support project entitled “Brain Dance” grew. It uses neuro-developmental movements that are important for cerebral function, balance, memory, and accessing language and includes family members in the work.

The Center’s plaza is home to recurring small programs (Tuesday night dance classes featuring salsa, Broadway, Bollywood, and country line dancing) and large community events like its Three Kings Day Festival. The TKD Festival grew out of meetings with a community advisory committee. The committee organizes the event (and others like it) with logistical support and seed money from the Center.

It’s true that presenter organizations have particular challenges when it comes to community engagement. However, their inherent strong incentive to connect, the educational programming many already offer, and their facility rich nature all represent engagement opportunities that many producing organizations do not have.

Let’s all




A member of a current cohort of our Community Engagement Training is a professional musician who is passionate about connecting with communities and has been so for years. Even before running across my books she was intuitively aware of the need for deeper relationships between musicians and people outside the artiverse. She has been an eager and very perceptive participant in the training.

All of that is why it was so revealing when she confessed shock at an insight that is part of the program. I assign some short readings (among others, thank you Trevor O’Donnell for this post) that highlight how self-focused and self-aggrandizing much arts marketing is and contrast that with virtually all other marketing, marketing that is about the consumer enjoying or benefitting from what is being promoted. The Austin Symphony brochure in question is one in which there are very few pictures of musicians or conductors. Almost all of the photos are of happy people attending the concert.

This bright, passionate, insightful musician was shocked. I mean really shocked that she had never noticed that the arts marketing materials she was used to were so . . . artcentric.

But to be honest, we shouldn’t be surprised that musicians (and most artists) are not aware of this feature of our world. The old adage that fish don’t notice water applies. We are so steeped in the awards/accolades/inside baseball approach to arts marketing that we take it for granted. That is, we are until someone points it out to us.

The first step toward effective community engagement is changing habits of mind on the part of those inside “the system.” Here’s a good place to start.




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On the Horizon

Earlier this month I highlighted three factors fueling a growing international interest in community engagement and the arts: economics (the “cost disease”); demographics (the declining percentage of people with European cultural backgrounds); and funders’ demands for much broader community impact than is typical with Eurocentric arts organizations.

It seems like a little expansion on these existential threats to the status quo might be in order. The rapidly rising cost of the arts (and all labor intensive industries) is not new and not news. What is perhaps worth emphasizing is that we are now at or past a breaking point where traditionally available resources are no longer able to keep up with that rise in costs. Expanding the base–of funders, of participants, of audiences–is essential.

Global demographic changes in which people whose cultural backgrounds are not European is another issue. When this is coupled with the growing social and political power of those people it forces greater accountability for attention and resources provided to arts institutions. Across the U.S., it has become imperative to consider the interests of Latino/a populations. Canada has begun to pay a good deal of attention to equity issues with respect to their First Nations. Both Singapore and China are seriously re-evaluating support of Eurocentric arts. Indigenous forms of cultural expression are, rightly in my view, questioning disproportionate backing of non-native cultural expression. If arts institutions cannot develop relationships addressing these imbalances, their futures are imperiled.

Since the ’60’s, the number of funders who support the arts as arts has declined precipitously. Many that had strong arts mandates, now barely fund the arts at all. (The Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation in my hometown is one that did this long ago.) One of the most notable of recent shifts like this is California’s Irvine Foundation.

Government funders are even more sensitive to a changing world. San Francisco has had a long-running controversy on this topic (The Visible Hand). In 2017 a bill was introduced in the Pennsylvania legislature to examine “systemic racism in arts funding.” The bill died in committee, but the point is that it was introduced. The political winds are shifting.

And funders of all kinds–individuals, foundations, corporations, government entities–are concerned that things they support have a broad impact. They want to to reach as many people as possible, a reach well beyond the traditional market share of Eurocentric nonprofits arts organizations.

So from the standpoint of costs, political reality, and shifts in funding, the need to engage deeply with new communities is essential to a sustainable future. As I said last time this is not true just in the U.S. We are seeing this phenomenon on a global level. And, in fairness, I should acknowledge that the title of this post is probably outdated. These issues are not just on the horizon. They are upon us now and action in response cannot wait.



Photo by Doug Borwick: Myrtle Beach, SC January 2019

ArtPlace America Engagement Resources

As I mentioned in an earlier post I recently had the opportunity to engage with Lyz Crane of ArtPlace America in a discussion about creative placemaking and community engagement. In the course of that discussion she shared some resources that ArtPlace has made available that can be of considerable benefit to anyone involved in community engagement.

The first is a blog post about crowdsourced funding for community-based projects. It offers a good deal of practical advice and introduced me to ioby “a nonprofit community crowdfunding platform that helps local leaders raise and organize all kinds of capital—cash, social networks, in-kind donations, volunteers, and advocacy—to meet their needs.” Looks like a good possibility for smaller projects.

The second link she shared was to ArtPlace’s Resources page. It’s full of useful material. I am particularly impressed with the sections on Community Planning and Development and Cross-Sector Collaboration.

These all present valuable tools for community engagement. Use them to help you better



Global Engagement

I began pondering issues related to community engagement almost 30 years ago. I began writing material that led to my first book on the subject about 10 years ago. And I started this blog about 7 and a half years ago. In all that time I assumed that my messages were pretty specific to the cultural and social history of the United States and to its arts institutions.

To my considerable surprise, in the last six years I have been asked to be a keynote presenter at conferences in Canada, Beijing, and Singapore and to do a couple of Skype-based guest presentations for a class at the University of Vienna. This year I have been asked to speak at conferences in Australia and Chile.

What has become clear to me is that the economic pressures faced by institutions presenting Eurocentric art forms are, throughout the world, forcing greater attention on spreading the reach of those arts. Community engagement is to my mind the best available means of doing so. (This is even true in a state-controlled society like China; or perhaps it is especially true there given the cultural dissonance that Eurocentric arts represent.)

At least some of the sources of this seeming universality seem to be:

  • Presentations by arts professionals are expensive and will become increasingly so thanks to the “cost disease.” This may not be exclusively true of Eurocentric arts, but it is certainly true of them. Ever-increasing revenue sources are essential.
  • The greater the disconnect between the cultural background of the broad populace and that of the roots of the arts presented, the greater the pressure for change. Rapidly shifting demographics and growing political power of native or indigenous peoples are major factors here. This is also true where Eurocentric arts have been transplanted to a place where they have no historical ties, like China and Singapore.
  • The vast majority of fundings sources–whether individual, corporate, foundation, or government–want or need to see evidence that their support is valued by more than the small percentage of any population that is enthusiastic about Eurocentric arts. (And need I observe that this is a declining percentage?) There are, of course, some funders that have a commitment specifically to these arts, but they are few in number and are not a growing cadre.

These are certainly preliminary thoughts and I may confirm, expand, or revise them after my trips this year. Also, I acknowledge that my conversations and experiences have been limited in comparison to the cultural richness of peoples around the globe–notably my lack of contact with on-the-ground sources in Africa. Nevertheless, it appears that the concern for connecting greater percentages of our communities with the arts seems to be a growing, not a declining, one.





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